Tim Pawlenty seeks distance from opponents on foreign policy

at 04:45 PM ET, 06/28/2011

Republican presidential candidate, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Tuesday, June 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
NEW YORK -- Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty attempted to separate himself from his fellow Republicans presidential hopefuls Tuesday in a speech that laid out an active and aggressive foreign policy vision with particular emphasis on the Middle East.

Pawlenty, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, criticized some in his party who have tended toward a more isolationist stance, particularly when it comes to the war in Afghanistan.

“America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal,” Pawlenty said, alluding, presumably, to Democrats. “It does not need a second one.”

While Pawlenty named no names, the target of his comments were clear: former governors Mitt Romney (Mass.) and Jon Huntsman (Utah).

Huntsman, in particular, has come out in favor of a more rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan than even the one that President Obama laid out last week.

Romney, raised eyebrows in a presidential debate two weeks ago when he said that the war in Afghanistan shows the United States “cannot fight another nation’s war of independence.” His campaign has since rejected the idea that he has moved toward isolationism.

Pawlenty is wasting no time, however, in trying to cast himself as the leading hawk among the top tier presidential candidates. And, even putting aside his stance on Afghanistan, Pawlenty is going far further than many of his Republican rivals have been prepared to go..

In his speech Tuesday, Pawlenty struck an aggressive tone about the U.S. role in the international community.

He suggested that the United States should push for regime change in several countries in the greater Middle East and North Africa, including Libya and Syria, and that it needs to push allies like Saudi Arabia to treat religious minorities and women better.

He criticized the Obama Administration for not doing enough to be on the right side of political change in Egypt and Iran; Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, has been a U.S. ally.

For Pawlenty, it’s just the latest example of him trying to separate himself from his rivals by staking out aggressive policy positions.

While Romney is the race’s frontrunner and both he and Huntsman have significant personal wealth to bring to bear on the race, Pawlenty is struggling to raise money or rise in early-state polls.

In response, Pawlently has laid out ambitious domestic policy goals, including huge tax cuts and a rarely achieved aim of 5 percent annual economic growth over the next decade.

Pawlenty appears to be trying to set the issue backdrop and shape the policy debate in the Republican presidential field, laying out high-minded goals and daring his opponents to jump on board.

To some extent, Pawlenty’s aggressive approach has worked. The Pawlenty campaign’s comments critical of Romney and Huntsman on foreign policy have fed a debate about the GOP’s supposed isolationism.

Romney’s campaign made clear immediately after the debate two weeks ago that he hadn’t shifted his foreign policy in any significant way and remained committed to strong national defense.

Huntsman’s campaign, too, is working to highlight that his position on Afghanistan does not imply any kind of unwillingness to act internationally — rather that he prefers a different approach.

“Jon Huntsman is the only candidate who has the foreign policy experience to know the threat and to understand the best way for America to protect our core national security interests,” Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller said in response to Pawlenty.

But unless Pawlenty catches on as a candidate, Romney and Huntsman have little incentive to match his aggressive policy-making either foreign or domestic.

For now, Pawlenty doesn’t have the luxury of a frontrunning or well-funded campaign that can pick and choose its issues. He needs to be a part of the conversation on almost all fronts, and he’s doing his best to accomplish that goal.

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